Wednesday 20 April 2011

Siedentop and Democracy in Europe

Last week I attended an interesting debate between Larry Siedentop, the author of Democracy in Europe, and several law Professors and lecturers in Leiden University. In his talk, and the subsequent debate, he discussed the direction of both the UK and Europe.

In Britain, he claimed that the social and cultural supports of the unwritten constitution are in decay, and that there would probably be a move towards a more codified constitution in the future. I agree that the support that the unwritten constitution rested on is decaying - just look at the debates in Parliament over sovereigny and parliamentary sovereignty and you can see that there's a worrying about of confusion over what the key principle of the British constitution actually means even to MPs: the very people the constitution gives absolute power to. With gorwing calls for referendums on issues (an aspect of popular sovereignty rather than parliamentary sovereignty), devolution, human rights and EU membership, more modern ideas of citizenship and the state seem to be seeping in, even if they are largely promoted with the language of the old constitution. If the UK is going to get a codified constitution, I doubt it will get it for a few decades.

On Europe, Siedentop focused on the problem that people aren't involved in the decision-making process and that they don't feel close to the EU. He remarked that nationalism had brought the state and the people closer together, but that it hadn't reached its full goal almost anywhere. Siedentop seemed to be against democratising the EU, saying that he would have prefered if the European Parliament wasn't elected as it hadn't brought people closer to the EU. Turning the clock back now was unrealistic, he accepted.

He proposed an EU were:

1. Member States could exit if they wanted (already the case under Article 50 TEU).
2. The European Parliament has an upper chamber consisting of the representatives of national parliaments (a "Senate").
3. Human rights was a focus.
4. The EU tried to do less, but did it better.

I'm not very convinced by this list. Apart from the first point, which is already the case, and I'm happy with, I can't the remaining points as particularly useful to solving the problem of bringing the EU closer to people and involving citizens in the decision making process.

Human rights have already been upgraded in the EU system. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights constrains the EU institutions to act within the bounds of human rights, and the EU is committed to joining the European Convention on Human Rights to the ECHR in Strasbourg will provide an additional judicial check on the EU institutions. Article 7 TEU provides a mechanism for the EU to sanction Member States that seriously breach the EU's values (democracy, etc.). Perhaps the EU could be reformed so that it could do more before using this nuclear option, but I think that the ECHR does a lot without duplicating its role within the EU. promoting better democratic politics at an EU level would probably be a good break on more populist tendencies by having a pan-European public as a watchdog against breaches. It's a soft political "measure", but I think that it's a culture that needs to be encouraged and that could have a positive effect.

Getting the EU to do less, but do it better is much, much easier said than done. It would likely be a lot easier to change things in the EU if it was more democratic in substance, as there could be a clear political majority in the institutions for policies like CAP reform. However, the current system is a finely balanced equation of interests and priorities, with CAP and structural funds balancing out freer trade and more liberalised market integration. (Should the EU stop working in the area of cross-border crime? The Netherlands is a strong supporter of this area, so cutting back on the more political aspects of the EU wouldn't automatically please even the more "pro-market area" Member Sates). Remove one, and it's hard to garantee that anything will be done better in the face of bitter Member States.

The senate idea is one I'd reject too. There is little use for another chamber in European politics. I asked Siedentop if it wouldn't be a better approach to have stronger Europarties and EP elections that could decide the leadership of the Commission, so that people would be more engaged (over time) as there would be a clearer link between elections and politicians gaining office and implementing policies. Over time I think this would contribute to building up a common political culture over the EU, though it would admittedly be an extremely long and difficult process. Siedentop responded by saying that informing people about European issues was the point of the senate, so that national politicians would come back and discuss European politics more.

I disagree because we already have elected politicians that have to compete for votes to get elected to have a voice on European policy - having indirectly elected people who will face the same barriers in the media and national political cultures are hardly going to make much more difference. Perhaps Siedentop's focus was to Europeanise national politics by restoring the direct link between national parliaments and the EU. This would mean continuing along the segmented national political cultures, and that political debate is hghly unlikely to go beyond nthe summitry of European politics in the public mind, where a national interest is declared and heads of government arte locked in a room to strike a deal.

Focusing on more open democratic politics would be an uphill struggle - and less based on institutions - but it's a vital one if the decaying old consensus in Europe (the economic integration one) is replaced with something more democratic and long-lasting.


  1. I absolutely agree with Siedentop (and you) that the foundations of the unwritten constitution in Britain are starting to decay. I'd love to see a written constitution in place.

    As to Siedentop's proposals - well, 1 is a bit strange. I suppose he means that it should be a fundamental principle enshrined in the treaties - and I would have to agree. It should never be removed from any future treaty revisions.

    2 and 3 I agree with you.

    With 4, however...

    "Getting the EU to do less, but do it better is much, much easier said than done. It would likely be a lot easier to change things in the EU if it was more democratic in substance,"

    But that would achieve the absolute opposite effect! Making the EU more "democratic" (and I share Siedentop's scepticism of democracy at the EU level) would just encourage the EU to do more, but do it worse. EP elections that decided the leadership of the Commission would have, I believe, no impact in slowing declining voter turnout. By trying to make the EU more democratic, you'll only end up conferring the semblance of greater legitimacy upon the EU (thus expanding the possible scope of its role) - whilst actually making it less democratic.

    "The current system is a finely balanced equation of interests and priorities"

    Yes, which is precisely what I love about the EU. It's a system built around compromise. If you introduce winner-takes-all party politics into the EU, you'll crush that careful system of compromise - and the house of cards will come tumbling down.

  2. Sorry for the late reply.

    I'm not sure where you draw the distinction that the EU will do more, worse, because of being more democratic. It's hard to measure "worse" and "better" when it comes to legislative output, but the more the EP has gained influence, the better the legislation has been. This is due to full-time legislators working on the text, rather than just leaving it to diplomats. The content of the laws would depend on the parties in the Parliament and the Council as well, and I can't really say how future elections will turn out, but I think that a closer link between the elections and the Commission presidency would inject more coherent policy goals - a shift further away from consensus towards more open coalition-building along left-right lines.

    It would not lead to a big rise in turnout straight away, but it would develop over time as the Europarties become more coherent and communicate better in order to win power. National elections will be the most important for a long time to come, but this will slowly raise turnout and make EU politics a bit more transparent and open. The subject matter of the policies will still be a negative, but we need to be both ambitious and realistic in improving things: realistic enough to make the simplest changes, ambitious enough to go out there and make the arguments. The electorate is not static, and it's up to people who want to make the EU more democratic to get stuck in and dirty their hands with actual election politics rather than institutional change.

    The political decay of the British constitution shows an example of how the EU is faring as well. The old coalition of economic and political interests that sustained the Community is not strong enough to bear the weight of the modern Union. More political decisions will need to be taken, and the consensus balance-of-interests simply cannot work effectively or as legitimately. Having a system where national interests are declared, thus muting debate at home, and then hammering out a compromise in a sealed-off room, leaving the media to tally up who lost and won, is ceasing to be useful or effective.

    You only need to look at the response to the Eurozone crisis. Plently of hot air and echo-chamber politics at the national level; no effective ideas or responses able to be either formed by compromise - and neither can politicians venture out of their echo chambers to win support for an idea to break the deadlock.

    Simply put, the balance of interests makes the EU superficially strong, in that change is hard to bring about, but really rather brittle. Those who place their trust in crises propelling the EU down the most practical path and being able to overcome obstacles have, in my opinion, a naive reading of the EU's history. The EU can't just coast along. The consensus house of cards is shakey, and can come tumbling down on us if it's not supported and reinforced by a more substantive engagement of people, even if it's a gradual process.

    As for majoritarianism, I'm proposing a more majoritarian system, in the same fashion as Simon Hix, not a straight majoritarian one. Supermajorities need to be won where the treaties currently have that system, but the political parties work to add more substance to the democracy side of things.